The November presidents
This month marks two significant anniversaries in the history of our country: President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address – to help dedicate a National Cemetery in that small town in Pennsylvania 150 years ago this Nov. 19, while three days later, Nov. 22, it will be 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was hit by an assassin’s bullets, tragically taking his life. These events, one inspiring and one tragic, live forever in American history. It’s right that we pause to recognize and reflect on them this fall.
The cemetery to be dedicated in Gettysburg in November 1863 would hold the bodies of those United States soldiers who gave their lives in a three-day battle there, almost five months earlier, in the first three days of July 1863. The main speaker at the dedication was to be Edward Everett, a renowned orator who specialized in such occasions. President Lincoln was also invited almost as an afterthought to offer a few “appropriate remarks.” This was to be a state – and not a federal – event so no insult was intended to or taken by Lincoln. Each state was honoring its own dead.
I like to think that Lincoln took the challenge of using only a few words to fully express his beliefs, in writing his short talk. He loved poetry – its beauty and its brevity – with its simple way of saying so much. As was his custom, he took some time in preparing the 272 words he would speak that day. Most historians agree that his talk was complete or nearly so by the time he left the capital – with maybe just a few finishing touches added – such as the words “under God” added after he arrived.
The day itself was a bit dreary but the early rain had stopped without affecting the ceremony. Everett spoke, without notes, for about two hours as he was expected to do, receiving the appreciation of the crowd of over 15,000. He was followed by a hymn sung by a local church choir. It was then Lincoln’s turn to speak (with his relatively high pitched voice with a trace of a Kentucky accent) inspiring those there and those in the world who would later read his words – and every generation ever since.
In less than three minutes, Lincoln redefined our country from what it had become since 1776 to what it should be – and would be – in the future.
The country we live in today: "…a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
A nation built on the sacrifices of many: "The brave men [and women], living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it [our land], far above our poor power to add or detract.”
A nation that requires our continuing commitment to its principles: “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln’s words reached the back of the crowd as he was sitting down and have been reaching the ears of many Americans, and others, ever since.
President Kennedy once said: “The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment; but it no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.”
The courage of Kennedy’s life met the tragedy of his death Nov. 22 in Dallas as he rode through its Dealey Plaza in a motorcade on his way to give a speech to city and state leaders at its Trade Mart.
I’ve been to that plaza three times visiting its assassination sites: the Texas School Book Depository building, the spot on Elm Street where the president was fatally hit, and the Grassy Knoll overlooking Elm Street – close by where Abraham Zapruder filmed the historic event.
While those spots memorialize the president’s death, there is another location just a few blocks from the plaza that commemorates his life. It’s the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. Its centerpiece is a monument honoring the president.
The unique structure is a cenotaph – an empty tomb – meant to symbolize the unbound freedom of Kennedy’s spirit. Its four unconnected walls seem to float with no visible support two feet above the earth. Eight columns extend to the ground as legs, supporting the monument with each ending in a light fixture. At night, these lights create the illusion the structure is supported by the lights alone, a magnificent sight.
I was impressed with the unique beauty of the structure the first time I saw it and, as I approached it, I looked forward to seeing a statue of JFK inside with some of his most memorable words inside on each of its four panels. However, once inside, I saw only a black marble base with the words: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy” engraved with gold lettering on each of its sides. The longer I stood there the more I felt his loss again – he was gone. I feel the same sense of loss in the room where Lincoln died in the Petersen House across from Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.
I’ve read about Lincoln as much as Kennedy. I respect both for their intelligence, courage, charisma and leadership. Our history would have been better if both had lived longer. Of course, men like these never really die – they live on in the inspiration they provided while with us through their deeds, and the words they left behind.
Here are President Kennedy’s closing words from the speech he never got to deliver that fateful day:
“We, in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than by choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward men.’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: 'except the Lord keep the city, the watchmen waketh but in vain.'"
Mel Maurer lives in Westlake